Iraq's Election Blues

Washington's surprise at the dubious post-election goings-on in Iraq is more noteworthy than what is causing it.

Surprise itself is symptomatic of a misplaced optimism about the country's future. A working democracy is the outcome of an evolutionary process -- in every society, in every civilization. The superimposition of a constitutional democracy's hardware on the public life of a country that has lived only with autocracy of one form or other leaves the software of democracy still to be developed, installed, and learned. That is a long-term project.

The contribution of foreign parties can be of some limited help but will not be determining. It also can be harmful. The US Embassy's non-stop lobbying for this, that or another deal is unlikely to bear fruit. It is likely to be resented by whomever it does not favor. The inevitable failure will leave everyone irritated by the interference. After seven years of occupation, we are on the brink of overstaying our welcome. That is hard for us to swallow given our long and costly engagement in Iraq. Especially so since we see ourselves in a rivalry with Iran for the place of Iraq's "best friend." This is something we should have thought about in 2002-2003.

We overstate the consequences for the region and for American interests of what happens politically in Iraq. No matter what, the Iraqi government will continue to pump oil; it will be preoccupied with its own internal affairs; it will take a low posture internationally; and it will bend over backwards to maintain cordial relations with every one -- Sunni and Shi'ite governments alike. That is hardly an end of the world scenario. This logic applies to whomever comes out on top (in all likelihood, an authoritarian figure in one guise or another). Yes, al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia will not disappear. Its ability or interest in doing anything outside the country, though, in all probability will remain slight. Moreover, there is simply no way of knowing whether out intervention in Iraq politics would lower or increase the possibility of AQM' becoming a participant in acts abroad. The links in the chain are too numerous, the permutations of cause and effect beyond calculation.

Iraq should not be treated as a ward of the world community, much less a ward of the United States. The legal basis of our presence was provided post-hoc by the UN. Other countries were eager to restrain the Americans and moved by humanitarian concerns. The subsequent UN presence was established without getting direct approval from the Iraqi people. After all, Saddam Hussein was the party whose conduct (or feared conduct) set the whole process in motion and offered the only justification for invasion and occupation. The Iraqi people were judged his victims. With his departure, there are no persuasive grounds for denying Iraq its full sovereign authority and powers. Hence, legally and politically, all outsiders are there at the sufferance of a government more legitimate than most in the vicinity.

It's time for a bit more distance as to what we have done and can do - and for keeping in check our proud craving for success in the most improbable of places.

The United States made grievous errors in attacking Iraq with total disregard for the consequences. One pays a heavy price for faulty judgment of that magnitude.

The paramount effect, a direct result of the invasion, has been to strengthen markedly the two parties most hostile to the United States: Iran, and the transnational franchise operation we call al-Qaeda. No amount of bravura or wishful thinking can erase that unforgiving truth. 'Success' has never been in the cards we dealt ourselves on March 20, 2003.

Still, Washington lusts for something it calls victory. A Tang poet has written: "when we live with so many absurd things, nothing seems absurd."